In 1959, we spent the summer on an old family farm. For my brother, Brian, and me it was an opportunity to dwell in Paradise. But this Eden had a serpent, a serpent in the form of an old yellow tractor.
When my father bought the farm back in 1955, the tractor was left sitting in the barn like an abandoned pet. It was an ancient Alliance. Brian was particularly attracted to the steering wheel.
For me, its most compelling feature was the starter. To fire it up required a judicious half-turn of the crank, followed by careful nursing of the choke.
Unfortunately, my father, grand as he was, could never quite turn the trick. As a result, the machine spent most of its time locked in the barn, a comfortable pensioner graciously idling away its twilight years.
But what are locks to adults are opportunities to children. Brian and I found innumerable entrances into the barn - from sliding under the big double doors to climbing on the roof and "hang dropping" into the hayloft under a loose board. Once inside, that old yellow tractor called to us like the ancient sirens on the ocean of our imaginations.
Brian always headed straight for the driver's seat. From there he could spread his arms across that Olympian steering wheel and "drive" me on all kinds of improbable journeys.
"Where to, Tommy?" he'd call.
"Nanny's house." Even though Nanny's house was more than 60 miles away, Brian would "start" the tractor, drive it up the wall of the barn, off the roof, and over the hills until we finally settled right down into our grandmother's backyard, where we were rewarded with ice cream sundaes. It was our favorite destination.
The summer passed peacefully, punctuated by tree climbing, berry picking, and cow chasing. Then one morning we took the easy way into the barn by sliding under the big double doors. Brian headed for his customary spot on the driver's seat.
"Give the crank a little turn," he called. I had witnessed my father turning the crank a hundred times without avail. But Brian was different. He had a relationship with the old yellow tractor, and when I obliged with the tiniest of turns, the motor coughed twice and roared to life.
"Where ya going?" I shouted over the noise.
"Nanny's house," Brian answered, matter-of-factly.
Before I could reply, the tractor was backing through the barn doors. I'll never forget my brother's delight as he guided the tractor down the hill. It was the purest expression of joy I have ever seen on a human face.
He made wide, sweeping turns to the left and right. He drove around a tiny milk shed beside the barn and over a couple of nascent pines before coming to an abrupt stop in the arms of an ancient apple tree.
Even though the entire ride lasted only a few seconds, the drama that followed stretched out for hours. My mother was hysterical when she came upon the scene, while my father, perhaps out of reverence for my brother's mechanical dexterity, reluctantly shut off the engine and lifted Brian gently from the wreck.
Neither Brian nor the tractor were much damaged by the incident, though afterward I noticed that the crank had been removed from the motor.
There were no more imaginary trips to Nanny's. But ever since that day, my brother and that tractor have been linked inexorably by the everlasting bonds of family mythology. Like Icarus and his wings, like Achilles and his heel, Brian and that yellow tractor still ride on through the golden highways of all our summer memories.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society